A Different Place

Sources & Methods: Podcast Follow-up

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We’re five episodes old! The small podcast I started together with Matt Trevithick is coming along nicely. In our most recent episode, we talk with programmer and note-taker Mark Bernstein. Mark is the force behind the notetaking and outlining software, Tinderbox, much beloved by knowledge workers. This episode is about note-taking, its uses and why people need to think reflexively about the work they’re doing. It seems to have struck a chord with listeners: we’ve had three times as many as usual.

That could also have been helped by a mention over at The Atlantic from James Fallows:

Mark Bernstein is the creator of intriguing idea-organizing Mac software called Tinderbox, which I’ve mentioned over the years. I have never met him but have often corresponded; three years ago, he was a guest blogger here. This week, in a podcast interview for the Sources and Methods site, he talks not so much about his software but about the larger question of how thinking interacts with the tools of the electronic age. If you find the podcast provocative, you might well be interested in the book The Tinderbox Way, which is equal parts guide to Bernstein’s Tinderbox program and meditation on the right and wrong approach to “information farming.” As you’ll gather from the podcast and see in the book, the kind of farming he has in mind is nothing like mega-scale factory farming and very much like an artisanal plot.

The Director of Teaching and Learning, for the Bedford/St. Martin’s imprint of Macmillan Education publishing house wrote a blogpost about the episode in which he recommended educators give it a listen:

There’s a lot in the discussion that maps on to teaching writing, teaching research, teaching thinking, and faculty development for those professors who want to help students get better at writing, research, and thinking. The interview can be assigned in time points for students, or one might scroll to to a point and play a snippet as a way to launch a discussion. For students especially, this discussion focuses on the role of noting, of seeing and recording, and in the act of doing so, of thinking, organizing, and find order. In a way, it’s about slowing down, of taking the time to start a system that will serve a learner as a writer, and over time, as they change as writers, learn more, know more, and will find it more and more useful to be able to go back into their reading and writing history to recall, reorganize, and rethink, note taking as a key element for revision.

I’ve added a number of podcasts to my regular queue in Overcast and in case you could use some recommendations, the following are almost always worth a listen, especially if you like the kinds of things you hear on Sources and Methods:

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

October 23rd, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Podcast,Useful Tools

Our First Publication: “I Am Akbar Agha”, Memoir of a Taliban Insider

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Very happy to announce the publication of First Draft Publishing’s inaugural book, I Am Akbar Agha. Felix and I have been working on this initiative for a while, and it’s nice to have it see the light of day.

Akbar Agha’s book is the latest in an (increasingly) long line of memoirs by individuals associated with the (Afghan) Taliban. So far we have insider accounts from Zaeef, Mutawakil, Mujhda, Mustas’ad, Abu al-Walid al-Masri and rumours of works being written by figures like Mawlawi Qalamuddin and others.

As for what’s in the book, I’ll refer you to the blurb on the back:

Following in the tradition of Mullah Zaeef’s My Life With the Taliban, Akbar Agha’s memoir tells a story of war, friendship and political intrigue. Starting in 1980s Kandahar, the difficulties and successes of the mujahedeen come through clearly as Akbar Agha struggles to administer a group of fighters. He details the different groups fighting in Kandahar, their cooperation and the scale of the Soviet Union’s efforts to crush them. Not directly a participant in the Taliban government that ruled post-1994, Akbar Agha offers a sometimes-critical account of the administration built by many of his former fighters. After the fall of the Islamic Emirate in 2001, Akbar Agha was involved in the Jaish ul-Muslimeen opposition group and for the first time he has revealed his account of what happened in the kidnapping of UN aid workers. I Am Akbar Agha ends with an analysis of the problems afflicting Afghanistan and outlines a vision for the political future of the country post-elections and post-2015. Anand Gopal has written an introduction to the book.


If you’re interested in Afghanistan and want to delve a little deeper into the Taliban’s (pre-)history, you’ll enjoy this book. Lots of new material.

We also published an exclusive interview with Akbar Agha over on our blog.

Anand Gopal has written a great foreword to introduce and contextualise the book. If you’re interested in learning more about the book but don’t know whether to commit to buying it, I’d recommend downloading the free preview/sample of the text via iBooks or the Amazon Kindle Store where you can read the full text of Anand’s foreword.

If you end up reading it, please leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads as a way of supporting our publishing initiative to get more of these primary source texts translated and made available to a wider audience.

Buy a paperback or electronic copy here: LINK

Find out more about First Draft Publishing here: LINK

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

September 16th, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Afghanistan,Books

Sources & Methods, or why I started a podcast

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If you go over to sourcesandmethods.com you’ll find the inaugural episode of a new podcast I’m doing together with Matt Trevithick. Seriously, go there now and have a listen. You’ll be able to subscribe from the iTunes directory etc in about a week or so, but for now if you want to hook it up to your preferred podcast client, use the RSS feed provided.

Matt and I wanted to do this partly as an excuse to talk to interesting people, but also out of a sense that there is a certain type of person who gets interviewed less than they ought (if at all). So here’s hoping that we keep interviewing interesting people, esp those who aren’t already saturating the media.

Head on over and give it a try. Anand talks about things he’s never talked about in a public forum (as far as I’m aware).

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

September 7th, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Posted in Podcast

An Ankified Urdu Frequency Dictionary

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Urdu Frequency Dictionary

Until recently I had been trying to spend more time in Pakistan’s megatropolis, Karachi. As part of this move I had been trying to learn Urdu. There are a variety of excellent study materials for Urdu, but I won’t write about those today. Rather, I want to offer up a resource for serious students of the language.

Readers of my previous language posts will know about Anki. For those who don’t know, it’s basically software that allows you to memorise pieces of information (such as foreign language vocabulary).

Frequency dictionaries are wonderful things. They present words of a language in the order of frequency used (usually in writing). They are assembled by amassing huge databases/corpora of text and these are analysed to see which words are used most often.

For a beginning learner of a language, they can be a real help. You start with the most frequently used words and work your way out to the ones you’ll encounter less.

Nothing like this exists for Urdu. Or so I thought. I was passed a series of scanned PDF images of an old frequency dictionary published in Canada in 1969. This was made on the basis of an analysis of newspaper copy/texts. Obviously the language used is a bit dated, but as a solid start, this is a good selection. (For those with deep pockets, you can search bookfinder.com for “An Urdu Newspaper Word Count” by Mohammad Abd-Al-Rahman Barker but I’ll warn you that the cheapest copies available are $100+ USD).

Unfortunately, in the part of the dictionary I was sent, the words are listed in alphabetical (by Urdu) order. This means that the order is not ideal. There are, however, 9,956 words in this collection. If you’re serious about Urdu you could do a lot worse than learning all of them. You’ll skew your vocabulary a little towards the literary side, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I had someone type up the whole dictionary into Anki and add a spoken audio file for every word. (Many thanks to Affan Ahmad for this massive labour.) You can even set Anki to deliver you words randomly served from the frequency dictionary.

So, without any further ado, the files are here. They are split up because Anki became a bit difficult when inputting the files, but you can combine them on your own computer into a single “Urdu” folder.



Enjoy! And please post any feedback below in the comments. I mainly wanted to get this out into the public so people can use it (rather than gathering dust on my laptop).

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

September 5th, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Two new co-authored reports on Afghanistan

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Just a short post. Two reports that I co-authored have just been published. They were both finished a few months back, but they’re not so time-sensitive that this will make much of a difference.

The first is for Chatham House, written together with Felix Kuehn. You can read the executive summary here, and download the full report here. The central point we were trying to get across is that a political settlement in Afghanistan must be about more than just ‘talks with the Taliban’. That ship has sailed, and new realities mean it’s important to bring all parties into a discussion about the future. I remain skeptical as to internal and external parties’ ability to make this happen, but here’s hoping…

The second report, much longer, was mainly an effort of Felix Kuehn and Leah Farrall but I contributed some things on the sidelines. This was expert witness testimony in the case of US vs. Talha Ahsan and US vs. Babar Ahmad. You can read some of the background to the case here and here. The report we were tasked with writing related to Talha and Babar’s activities in Afghanistan during the 1990s, and the extent to which this equated with support for or ‘membership’ in al-Qaeda. Felix and I have already written a decent amount on the topic, but it was great to team up with Leah to dive into the foreign fighters’ side a great deal more.

You can read our report here, starting on page 148. It’s a long report, but there’s a lot of new material in there which has never been published (as far as I’m aware).

I’d also recommend reading through the judge’s statement Talha’s sentencing memo. I don’t quite understand why there hasn’t been more media coverage of this trial, and how the government were more or less told their case was extremely rickety. Perhaps it’s because of all the other things going on at the moment.

UPDATE: Edited on August 11 to reflect error in identifying the sentencing memo.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

August 9th, 2014 at 11:20 am

How to learn a language to fluency: interview with Gabe Wyner

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Gabe Wyner has a book out today, and I took the time to interview him about his method. It relies on several things I’ve mentioned on this blog before — namely Lang-8, Anki, spaced repetition, mnemonics etc — so I’m trying out something new: posting the audio of the interview I did a few days ago.

Gabe’s book is worth your time, especially if you’re getting back into learning languages, or if you’re starting for the first time. If you have less patience for books and the written word, you can watch his course over on CreativeLive. It’s 18-hours of instruction (in an classroom environment) on how to learn a language using his method. All the steps outlined in his book are expanded upon in this course. I have watched it all, and can attest to its value.

The interview can be listened to on Soundcloud or directly below:

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

August 5th, 2014 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Books,Language,Podcast

The Best Books I Read in 2013

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This year was a big one. 79 books in total, and still a few days to go.

I only have one Afghanistan-related pick this year, and that’s Vanessa M. Gezari’s The Tender Soldier. Gezari’s tale of incompetence, misunderstanding and tragedy packs a punch. Some of the middle sections of the book — profiling those involved higher up in the Human Terrain Teams’ management — could probably have been ditched. Speed through them, though, and you have a story whose complexity and strangeness has the eerie ring of reality. Definetely the best book I’ve read on Afghanistan in recent years.

The rest of my favourites are a bit all over the place:

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch needs no selling by me, but it’s a real return to true form. As always with Tartt, be careful when you start as it is incredibly gripping and you’ll be neglecting work, friends and family in order to keep reading. Also, be careful: this one’s a bit of an emotional kick-in-the-guts.

Jon Moallem wrote Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America as a way of reconnecting with the natural world while his daughter grew up, and it was one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable books I read this year. Stories about conservation, humans and how we interact with all the other species on the planet. The book is broadly structured in three parts, covering polar bears, butterflies (Lange’s Metalmark) and the whooping crane. Mooallem looks at the ways in which people are involved in efforts to save these three species, often ending up telling us more about humans than the animals that are nominally his subject. He tells a hopeful tale, for the most part, and although his slightly saccharine ending wasn’t really to my taste, it probably is correctly pitched for an American audience. We don’t understand the effects of our actions in the world, or when we think we do, we don’t anticipate second and third-order consequences. It’s not a new idea, but it was memorably told in this well-written book.

Lion Kimbro’s How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think (available for free here) isn’t new, and it definitely wins the strangest-book-of-2013 prize. Kimbro decides he wants to map out his thoughts 24-7 for a few months and the book is a description of the process he used to map it all out. It’s written in a stream-of-consciousness style, and there’s an awful lot about pens and paper and binders and organisational systems and information hygiene (for want of a better term). There’s a lot worth taking away from the experiment, though, and if you can make it through the book you’ll have learnt a few tricks on the way.

I LOVED Matt Potter’s Outlaws Inc., the first book I’ve read where a piece of technology (in this case the IL-76 cargo plane) is a lead character, but WHAT a story. Potter takes you through the world of air cargo transport and the post-Soviet airmen who fly the planes. It’s perhaps a bit long, but that’s probably me being unfair. I was up all night reading this book. Definitely recommend it for shining a light on something I hadn’t really thought about but that is very much a part of trade and international aid.

Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language wasn’t an easy read, but it’s the smartest (and easy-to-understand) book on linguistics I’ve read. It offers an overview of how languages work, and how they change over time (fragmenting and joining together in a myriad of strange ways). I’m looking forward to reading Deutscher’s other book in 2014.

I’ve been a big fan of Marie (aka puredoxyk) for about a year now. I did a 2-month experiment switching to a polyphasic sleep cycle earlier this year — that’s 2-4 hours of sleep only per day, depending on various things — and I couldn’t have done it without her book Ubersleep: Nap-Based Sleep Schedules and the Polyphasic Lifestyle. (She’s also very nice/helpful online). This book offers clear, useful advice on shifting to a polyphasic sleep cycle. If you’re interested in sleep modification (and being able to sleep only 2 or 4 hours per day without medium-long-term issues), give this book a read. If nothing else, it’ll expand your sense of what is possible, and that’s always a good thing.

Finally, two health-related books. The past couple of years have been filled with various health issues (some mine, and some of others close to me) and I read more about health, fitness and diet than usual. Anti-Cancer by David Servan-Schreiber was one of the more helpful books on cancer that I read. It could probably use a bit of updating, but it is clear, offers evidence with references to follow up with further reading, along with useful lists of the basic ingredients of the so-called ‘anti-cancer’ diet. Was also glad to see that emphasis is placed on the mind-body connection. Could easily have been left out with all the focus on diet and nutrition. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn has a bit of a hippy title, but it’s full of really important and powerful techniques. I’d strongly recommend it to anyone with ongoing chronic pain/illness issues.

Those were the best. Drop your book recommendations for 2014 in the comments below. I’m going to try for 100…

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

December 27th, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Posted in Books

Taliban Time Travel, or How Our Understanding Is Almost Always Two Years Old

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I’ve been noticing something on twitter and in the public debate surrounding the Afghan Taliban over the past few days. An interview of Motassim in the Guardian last week was shared widely online, and people particularly seemed to find his comments about Mullah Mohammad Omar’s loss of control of the Taliban interesting. To those following the Taliban closely this isn’t news. It’s been the case for two or three years at least.

What is interesting is that it has taken that long for that kind of analysis and comment to become accepted by mainstream commentators and to become part of the public debate on the Afghan Taliban.

My very unscientific guess is that there’s usually a lag of 6-18 months from a trend starting to emerge within the Taliban to the point where those outside the movement start to notice it. And from there there’s another 1-2 years before a particular feature or analytical point becomes accepted and part of public discourse.

Needless to say, this incredibly slow dispersal of understanding makes it hard for analysis and action to mesh together usefully.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

September 23rd, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Book of the Week: ‘Al-Shabab in Somalia’

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An excellent overview of the history of the Somali al-Shabab group, one with many lessons or reminders of Afghanistan (at least for this reader).

This is a short book, based on some reports written for FFI and others, and in that it has the virtue of concision. Hansen covers al-Shabab’s history starting with early proto-Islamist movements and groups started several decades ago. It was the best explanation of where the networks that make up al-Shabab come from that I’ve read, although it may just be that I haven’t been following this too closely since the last time I was last in Mogadishu a couple of years ago.

It was packed with stories and trends that reminded me of Afghanistan, both in the way the international actors chose to respond and intervene, and also in the development of al-Shabab itself. For this reason I’d strongly recommend this book to those working in and on Afghanistan. You’ll find a rich vein of material that you can bring back to enrich your understanding of the Taliban and/or the past decade or three. (Needless to say, I’m the last person to suggest that everything is the same in every country, and that there aren’t hundreds of reasons why comparisons aren’t useful in a this-happened-in-somalia-so-it-must-be-the-same-in-afghanistan.)

There are lots of names and places mentioned, and if you’re not familiar with at least the bare outlines of the plot so far as well as some of the key players, you might find it confusing. I wish there was some sort of reference in the back to allow you to keep track of all the different people mentioned.

As always, I wasn’t really sure I got a sense of the leaders of al-Shabab (or their fighters) as people in this book, but maybe that’s one step too far and one in which it’s harder to offer anything that isn’t highly subjective or just unrepresentative. Perhaps we can look forward to a book of al-Shabab’s songs and poems from Hurst in the future?

Overall, though, an impressive collation of information. Hansen has done us all a service in spending time in Somalia doing fieldwork and in taking the time to put this book together.

Buy it here.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

July 20th, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Translators Sought — Job Opening

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I’m about to start a large archive translation project (together with Felix Kuehn and Anand Gopal).

We’re looking for some high-quality translators to work full-time on a project translating old newspapers and magazines from Pashto (and a small amount of Dari) into English.

The work would be 5 days per week, but you will be free to work from home. I.e. there will almost certainly not be any office for you to work from.

The project will take place over the course of a year, with a possible extension to a second year. We would initially hire you for a trial period before committing to hire you for the full year.

If you’re interested, please head on over to the form here and fill it out. We’ll get back to you in due course, if and when we’re ready to start the hiring process.

UPDATE (JULY): We’ve stopped taking applications and are working on finalising the hiring process. Thanks for all your interest!

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

April 20th, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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